Recognizing Michael Herz, Lifelong Leader for Change
The Environmental Health Strategy Center this year recognizes longtime leader for change Michael Herz, PhD, as the winner of our 2017 Frank Hatch Environmental Health Leadership Award.
“In the 30-plus years I’ve known Mike Herz, he’s always demonstrated a passion for a healthier environment, a zeal for citizen science, and an intolerance of wrong-doing of any kind—whether by bureaucrats or polluters,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of Environmental Health Strategy Center and Prevent Harm.
A lifelong environmental health champion, Mike has been involved in some of the movement’s earliest victories. In fact, when reflecting on his career, Mike recalls most proudly a precedent-setting win during his tenure as San Francisco BayKeeper (1989-1995). In 1990, the program “found someone was illegally dredging at night in a highly polluted shipyard,” says Mike.
“Lead, tin, PCBs, and other pollutants were being released into the water” as a result of the dredging, Mike explains. “They were doing this at night so they could get away with not having a permit to do it. So, we sent out a Baykeeper volunteer in a kayak at night—and caught the nighttime polluter.”
With Mike leading the charge, Baykeeper went to a local regulatory agency—and was met with stunning disinterest. The agency wanted to grant the company an after-the-fact permit and simply charge an extra $100 to file the paperwork.
“If you look at the Clean Water Act, the company could have been charged $25,000 a day for what they were doing,” Mike says.
“After weeks of illegal dredging and no enforcement,” Mike says, he went to the local media and to the federal EPA Criminal Investigation Service. “Within a week, the EPA showed up at the shipyard and collected boxes of records and samples and began an investigation that ended up with an indictment of the owner of the shipyard. He went to trial, was convicted, and went to jail for a year.”
“It was the first time that anyone had done jail time for an environmental crime in the San Francisco Bay,” Mike notes.
That “first” was one of many in Mike’s long career of pushing for change.
Mike began his advocacy career as co-founder and executive director of the Oceanic Society chapter in 1970s San Francisco, where he established one of the first ocean water-monitoring programs in the country. This came soon after the Clean Water Act had established new protections for bodies of water like San Francisco Bay—and new consequences for anyone who ignored the rules.
Mike was a force to be reckoned with, swiftly moving on to lead the National Oceanic Society as executive vice president, during which time he worked to establish local chapters in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Armed with good data and his characteristic dogged persistence in his fight for the common good, at the Oceanic Society Mike Herz…
- Successfully fought the U.S. Navy’s efforts to dump obsolete—and radioactive—nuclear submarines in the ocean off the California coast;
- prevented the U.S. Interior Department from leasing the seabed off the California and Oregon coasts for the mining of polymetallic sulfides;
- prevented the ocean incineration of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals.
As time went on, Mike’s skills as a scientist and his drive as an advocate led him to play a variety of notable roles on a variety of stages in the national movement for environmental health. As the founder of the San Francisco BayKeeper program, Mike became the first BayKeeper in the United States in 1989; he was appointed by Alaska’s governor to serve on the Alaska Oil Spill Commission after the Exxon Valdez disaster that same year; he has also served on numerous advisory committees for the National Research Council, U.S. Department of the Interior, and the State of California.
For decades, Mike has also successfully steered environmental nonprofits in a variety of leadership and board roles. Those organizations here in Maine include Maine Initiatives, Maine Rivers, and the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association, where Mike formerly served as president. Currently, he serves on the boards of Friends of the Earth-US (where he previously served as board chair), the Conservation Law Foundation, and our action arm, Prevent Harm.
“Mike Herz has helped lead and build effective environmental organizations on both coasts and nationally,” observes Mike Belliveau.
As Mike Herz looks to today’s generation of up-and-coming advocates, he advises them to keep on fighting, no matter how tough the battle. “It’s us fortunate ones in the nonprofit community who get to push, yell, and tell good stories that help to change laws and regulations,” says Mike.
In a lifetime and a career devoted to science and to advocacy, Mike’s learned the power of persistence, passion—and good data. Science and advocacy “go hand in hand,” Mike says. It's the solid science and smart advocacy focused on protecting kids and families from harm that Mike so admires in the work of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Prevent Harm. “This has been a banner year in terms of accomplishments for safe drinking water, safe food, and safe products,” Mike notes. “This is the culmination of years of effort, it’s all come to fruition this year. It’s been a very, very exciting year for EHSC and Prevent Harm.”
Given to an exemplary leader whose actions over a lifetime have created a significant positive impact on environmental public health, the Frank Hatch Environmental Health Leadership Award pays tribute to Frank Hatch (1925-2010), an extraordinary public servant, activist, and philanthropist whose achievements are a source of inspiration about the power of public engagement and advocacy.
“As a scientist, activist, and philanthropist, Mike Herz has consistently exemplified the kind of leadership embodied by the late Frank Hatch himself,” notes Mike Belliveau.